Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead

Marie, Wife of Roland

Marie Antoinette was allowed none of the privileges of her imperial descent after that most woeful flight to Varennes. It was held that the King had given up the rule of France by condescending to a flight beyond the frontier. The idea of monarchy might be propped up by the Royalists still in Paris, but it was Lafayette who gave orders in the very palace of the Tuileries. And in the Government there was to be another queen, ruling for a short period of time, and suffering the same penalty as her namesake; this was none other than Phlipon the engraver's daughter—Marie-Jeanne Roland.

Louis XVI accepted the new Constitution as it behoved him. He was subservient to the will of the men who brought him back to be a puppet or a figure-head. He agreed to the dissolution of the National Assembly, possibly feeling that the body had never wished him well and would be best dispersed. He agreed to the summoning of a Parliament that was to pass laws and be chosen by the active citizens. It was only to hold office for a year, and might include none of the former members of the late Assembly. There was the chance of ridding the Court of tyrant deputies, and secretly the King believed that he would be rescued ere long by his wife's warlike kinsmen and the clever scheming of the nobles who had emigrated.

Mirabeau lay in the tomb of the Pantheon, whither France had taken him with more than regal honours. Lafayette had laid down his command and gone into the country, where he had estates; Robespierre and the rest had been scattered to the four winds, but a new Government was formed in October 1791, and a woman led it by the clearness of her mind, the force of her wit, and sincere love of country.

[Illustration] from Story of the French Revolution by Alice Birkhead


The power in the Assembly was chiefly in the hands of the men from the Gironde, a district in the South of France. The Girondins were young for the most part, and of a singularly pure nature. One of the elder members was Roland de la Platriere, formerly inspector of manufactures in the neighbourhood of thriving Lyons. Roland had married rather late in life, and brought to Paris a woman whose existence had been bounded for many years by the humblest duties of a housewife in the provinces.

She must have been of good courage, Marie Jeanne, generally known as Manon. She had been brought up very simply, as became the daughter of an honest burgher claiming nothing higher than some artistic talent and a moderate income.

It was in Paris that Phlipon's only surviving child was reared. She saw the sights of the city, but was seldom dazzled by any glimpse of splendor. Her mother was resolved on her education, and she had masters for music and dancing and gave much attention to drawing, for which she had inherited a talent. She read eagerly, and was a pupil who repaid the care of her instructors. She was conscious of her own ability and wrote of it frankly, describing herself, also, as very pleasing in appearance,—not vanity, as can be judged by the portraits which survive.

Like Rousseau, she loved the stories of the Greeks and Romans and saw all the glory of their deeds. She took scant interest in the fortunes of France at that epoch. It was not till youth was past, indeed, that the woman who swayed a ministry became absorbed in politics. Life in a convent passed happily with schoolgirl friendships, one of which long flourished. She wrote frequently to her young companions after she had left them, but the course of her existence was not eventful. She had several suitors, but would not be mated rashly. Sound common-sense was one of her characteristics, and ambition guided her to the marriage she desired ardently with the man of learning and family, Roland de la Platriere.

He was dry and austere, but Manon Phlipon found his companionship attractive. She was not frivolous, and adored letters. There was an element of romance about this middle-aged pedant, for he claimed the privileges of nobility and boasted ancient lineage. Manon had lost both her mother and her fortune. The character of her father made her fear that their home would be unhappy through a second marriage. Therefore it was with satisfaction that the comely young Parisian joined the household of Roland, not harmonious unfortunately, since it numbered several members of her husband's family who warred against the new-comer.

Yet the busy brain was occupied, and it was no dullness that restrained the wife from playing an active part during those years in the country when she devoted herself to child and husband. She became acquainted with the details of Roland's work as inspector of manufactures, she was considered the best doctor of the district, and gave help generously whenever there was sickness. Her only daughter, Eudora, proved a disappointment, because her character was light and frivolous. The wise mother placed her in a convent and threw herself into the career of Roland. She went with him to Paris, and when the post of Minister of the Interior was offered to him she took a conspicuous place in the direction of affairs.

There were few prominent members of the ruling body who did not know and respect the vivacious hostess who never obtruded her views at the famous dinners in her salons, once occupied by Madame Necker. She chose to be always in the background, and was often silent while matters were discussed that she understood much better than the speakers, but everything came before her in that time of doubtful action. Her judgment was passed on all the leaders of the moment. She had seen Mirabeau, and esteemed him a man above the common—she described him as "great by his talents, little through his vices," but always the master did he choose to command. She knew Robespierre well, and thought him a man of mark, though nothing of an orator. She disliked Dumouriez the gay courtier, and believed him to be false and likely to betray his colleagues.

[Illustration] from Story of the French Revolution by Alice Birkhead


Dumouriez perhaps nettled the wife of plain, unpretentious Roland on that famous occasion when the new minister of the Interior went to Court in the round hat, simple costume, and shoes tied with ribbon. There was still some attention paid to etiquette in the Tuileries, and one of the gentlemen-in-waiting approached Dumouriez with an anxious face to comment on the strangeness of the King's new ministry.

"No buckles to his shoes," he explained in an anxious whisper. "Ah, monsieur," gallant, sophisticated Dumouriez replied, "all is lost!

Accustomed though she had been to an upper floor not too well furnished in the rue Saint-Jacques, fair Madame Roland could better adapt herself to new conditions, and soon became the centre of that Girondin party, whose work was of such vast importance. She had a genius for friendship, and many of the brilliant young men of the day sought her council. She could prevent a heated argument by her tact and wisdom, and guided her husband without showing that she was the bolder spirit. She would inspire the faltering with decision, and convey to the lukewarm something of her own enthusiasm.

For this woman of the Third Estate who had made it her business once to be a pattern housewife, was devoted to the realm of France, ready when the time should come to lay her sacrifice upon the altar. She wrote of King Louis as a man of ordinary merit, placed in a position where he needed extraordinary skill. Her own character was decided, whereas he could settle nothing. She had all the strength of mind which he lacked in the transaction of public business. She had a breadth of view which that other Marie could never grasp. She was working for the State while the Queen and her followers were working for their personal interests.

It was plain that war must be declared whether France were reluctant or eager. The countries of Europe had been startled by the practical dethronement of a Bourbon. They had resolved that monarchy must be supported even against the wishes of the people.

Marie Antoinette was corresponding feverishly with Fersen, who would have gained the help of Sweden had not the King been assassinated at that time of troubled history. She was trying to bring about an International Congress with armed force at the back to overawe the citizens of Paris and punish them for these first dread years of revolution. Her brother Leopold died just as he was about to march to her aid, and her husband was obliged to read aloud a declaration of war against her nephew, then known only as the King of Hungary.

War was decreed by the ministry in April 1792. The attack had been made on France, in fact, in August of the previous year, when the Declaration of Pilnitz was drawn up, a compact between the Emperor, Marie Antoinette's brother, and the King of Prussia. It declared that they would use force, if necessary, to restore absolute authority to Louis, King of France. Events delayed action, and meantime Paris, in its own defence, demanded that a camp of 20,000 volunteers should be formed against the enemies of Revolution.

Both King and Queen had been filled with hope that the army of the Girondin ministry would be defeated. They were resolved to welcome an invading force that brought them hope of rescue. It was sensible to pretend to approve the measures of the Parliament, since Parliament had them in its clutches. It was another thing to allow the formation of a body capable of resisting the model army of Prussia. The King hesitated over this decree, which was bracketed with a second against the clergy who refused to consider themselves the paid servants of Government. He decided on the 19th of June, the anniversary of his flight. He would veto the establishment of the camp of 20,000; he would not banish the priests, so loyal to his own faith.

While the King delayed, while Dumouriez, Minister of War, was summoned to the Queen, who did not find his manners boorish, the ruling spirit of the Girondins had realized the necessity of action. Mme Roland, deploring always the weakness of her husband's colleagues, wrote, at a single sitting, a letter to the King, stating the necessity for complying with the demands of the patriots. In language simple and yet forcible, she gave Louis to understand, that he would be exposed to the attack of his whole kingdom unless he listened to these arguments. The letter was signed by the ministers after many difficulties had been raised in the salons of Roland.

The plain-spoken letter was handed to the King and he read it, rejecting the good counsel of his ministry. The rulers of the kingdom were dismissed, and the veto was issued to the disgust of patriots in Paris. Their answer to the arbitrary power of monarchy was a procession to the Tuileries.

The mob beat on the King's door and demanded that the veto should be removed, the patriot ministers restored to office. Louis faced them with the courage he showed at certain times of danger, and replied quite coolly. He accepted a red cap of liberty, and drank from a bottle offered by one of the rascal crowd, bidding them observe that he was not afraid.

The Queen and her children were barricaded while the people roamed at large through the great bare palace. When the stream of citizens approached them, they shrank before the curious gaze of those who made light of royal privacy, but bore themselves bravely, and pretended they could see no chance of insult. The Queen put a thick and dirty cap on the little Dauphin's curls, an action she loathed, but one which pleased the intruders. She was eager to show attention to the deputies who stayed behind when the noisy rabble had departed, and a sense of salvation made her unbend to them. She offered to show them the brief ceremony of her son's undressing, and instructed the sleepy child to declare that he loved the nation. When they, too, had left the occupants of the desecrated building she wept. The humiliations of the day had been heroically borne. Now there was reaction, and she might well envy Mme Roland, that other queen who had been defeated in her bold act of protest but would rise again to splendid sovereignty.